East Belfast: Naomi Long bounces back from defeat to return to frontline
A victorious Naomi Long was last night smiling over all her face which had been moist with tears in private after the last time she stood for election in east Belfast.
The Alliance Party's deputy leader who cried along with her party workers after she lost her Westminster seat to the DUP a year ago has now fought her way back to frontline politics by winning a seat in the Assembly.
In 2015 she styled herself the 'Ginger Ninja' but last night she was hailed a real-life champion by the party she seems destined to lead before long.
Mrs Long came second in the Assembly poll behind the DUP's Joanne Bunting who was branded by a number of commentators in the run up to the election as 'Joanne Who?" even though she's a former Mayor of Castlereagh.
Mrs Bunting said she'd been expecting to be involved in a dogfight to win one of the last seats in East Belfast where former DUP leader Peter Robinson had been an MLA until he retired earlier this year.
"I thought I would be slogging it out at the end but it's a lovely surprise to have topped the poll. I am honoured to be representing the people of east Belfast," said Mrs Bunting, who served on Castlereagh council for 11 years.
But she's no stranger to Stormont either. "I have worked in the Assembly for 18 years, the last nine of them in the Chief Whip's office. So I am familiar with the workings up at Stormont though this will be a whole different ball game."
Mrs Bunting had 5,538 first preference votes, just 56 more than Mrs Long who revealed that she had considered pulling out of politics altogether after she was defeated at the Westminster election last year.
"It was an option," she said. "I didn't rush back into politics. I took my time because I wanted to be sure I was doing the right thing. But the passion was still there and I wanted to be back as part of the team at Stormont."
Mrs Long said she was hopeful that her running mates Chris Lyttle and Tim Morrow would win a second, and possibly a third one in what she added was the party's best-ever vote for any constituency in an Assembly election.
Mrs Long and Mrs Bunting may have been elected on the first count but the return of any more candidates was significantly slower. The PUP's high-profile councillor in east Belfast, Dr John Kyle, threw in the towel early on saying he was disappointed that he had not done better at the polls.
The DUP were confident that they would retain their two seats in East Belfast through Sammy Douglas and Robin Newton.
The party's East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson, who was an ever present at the count in the Titanic Exhibition Centre, said that the absence of his predecessor Peter Robinson during the election campaign had not been a factor or a mystery.
"Arlene is the party leader. Peter has retired but he still takes a keen interest."